English profiles

Amsterdam, 5 November 2016

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to start with a quote by Gustav Mahler who once said:”The most important thing is not in the notes”, do you agree with him?

Joseph Moog (JM): This goes more for certain composers, e.g. Haydn, Mozart and Scarlatti. They knew how to play their music with very few indications. Some music is overloaded with indications, including Mahler’s own. With such music, it is difficult to make it all happen and to grab the intentions of a composer.

WB: If the importance is not in the notes, where is it?

JM: You’ll never be able to put everything there. Most importantly,  you should try to express an emotional context.

WB: Can musicality be taught?

JM: There is a lot you can’t learn, e.g. to project your sound or the ability to be spontaneous. You have to live in the moment. A lot of instinctive things are happening on stage.

WB: I have a few questions regarding your debut recital in Amsterdam on 27 September 2015. I was surprised this programme was accepted, since it included a few unknown compositions, for instance I thought it was more the kind of repertoire for the Husum festival?

JM: It was a co-production, I offered a more conservative programme, but Marco Riaskoff (the promotor who organizes the Meesterpianisten-series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, WB) preferred this programme and it worked quite well. It was an exceptional situation, because these were merely works you normally don’t hear. It is great that they wanted me to play it!

WB: Can you play such a programme anywhere?

JM: No, it is especially difficult in Germany! There are some festivals with an audience that appreciates unknown repertoire, like the one in Husum you mentioned or the Klavierfestival Ruhr, but in cities like Berlin, Hamburg or München it would be difficult, since the audiences are conservative. It would even be hard to play the Tschaikofsky Sonata there. They miss some interesting repertoire.. Amsterdam was a special opportunity, especially for my debut.

WB: Can we discuss some of the pieces you played? The Beethoven Fantasy in G minor opus 77, what kind of a piece is it to you?

JM: It is a rare piece, I had seen it before, I had read about it. I recently played the Choral Fantasy and saw parallels in the opening of both works. There are quick changes that are very close to Beethoven’s improvisation skills if we may believe what Czerny said about it. It’s a very noble opening of a recital, but also a confusing one because of the unexpected wandering through several keys. It is a nice piece to open a recital with, just like Haydn’s Fantasy.

WB: Then the Tschaikofsky sonata (opus 37), I love his music (1st Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, ballets, Piano Trio), I even love the less inspired Tschaikofsky (2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, Fantasy for piano and orchestra), but I dislike the uninspired Tschaikofsky (Manfred Symphony and this sonata). I have always had the feeling that he wanted to write an orchestral piece but he didn’t succeed: the first movement is very long and even a pianist like Richter (who rarely ever disappointed me) can’t make it work for me. What makes it worth while for you?

JM: That’s a good association, it is indeed a very orchestral sounding sonata. The beginning consists of unusual motives you wouldn’t write for piano, but more for string players. It is difficult to make it work, since there are a lot of repetitions, just like Schumann. He went through a crisis in his personal life  (it was mainly due to his unfortunate love to his former student) and didn’t write anything for a year. This was his comeback piece. The first movement is long and bombastic, that’s why I chose to play the Beethoven Fantasy before.

WB: Are they written in the same key?

JM: That’s an interesting question, Beethoven starts in G minor and ends in B major, in between it’s not logical, there are no significant keys at all…

WB: A critic wrote about your Tschaikofsky performance: “Even Moog couldn’t avoid in these masses of sound that you missed an oboe or a horn”, what do you think of this assessment?

JM: It’s legitimate. It helps to interpret this sonata when you think like a conductor. On the other hand, it’s also tricky when you are actively playing! You have to be emotionally involved too.

WB: Is it well written?

JM: Its writing is unconventional: some of the intervals included 5ths and 6ths,which is usually the way you write for a violin. But overall it’s not one of the most difficult pieces.

WB: The same critic wrote about your performance of Hexaméron: “..but exactly in Hexaméron and Godovsky, he stumbled over his own virtuosity. It was so prominent that there was no room for the most important feature of this specific repertoire: having fun on the piano.”

JM: I take Hexaméron seriously, it is not a fun piece as far as I am concerned. There is no such thing as virtuosity for me. That word is often used in the sense of “superficial”. Virtuosity demands a lot of techniques, not only pyrotechnics. Schubert or Chopin can be virtuosic too, they manage to do different things at the same time, also in terms of pedalling and left hand writing. As I said, Hexaméron is not a fun piece, on the contrary, it’s very demonic. There is a lot of rivalry hidden in it, since it was written  by six different composers. It’s even furious and only the Chopin nocturne is an oasis.
Godovsky is more of a fun piece, the way he wrote it is very decadent. He was on the brink of the end of an era. There is a lot of sarcasm, you can somewhat feel that the war is knocking on the door. (It was written in 1910). It’s more than fireworks: the harmonic ideas are incredible and Godovsky turned them into something noble.

WB: Would you say that he did the same in his transcriptions of some of Chopin’s etudes?

JM: That was an experiment, for some of the etudes he wrote four versions and changed them into new characters.

WB: I can’t help to find them “trashy” and not as good as the originals!

JM: He admired them and didn’t mean to replace the originals! He didn’t try to surpass them, maybe he had a war worm and this was his way to deal with it. He was an autodidact and you should consider these transcriptions as collages, probably like those of Andy Warhol. They are called “studies” or “experiments” and there is no intention to surpassing the originals behind it. That’s what I find wonderful about music: there is always a secret left, pieces don’t belong to performers, you rent them!

WB: You play virtuosic rarities from the golden age of Hoffman, Godovsky, Moszkofski, Friedman, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein. Do you feel close to the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century?

JM: Yes, I do. It was a rich era and we have forgotten about many great composers and performers. We look at Schoenberg and Berg who moved further, Medtner and Rachmaninov were geniuses as well. Reger was on the limit of tonality, but it doesn’t mean that his music was less than the atonal pieces by Schoenberg. One of my favourites is Scriabin, his works move me the most. They are like a drug! It’s a pity he died so early. The development in hardly 30 or 40 years was amazing. I  tried to demonstrate that on my CD “Divergences” with works of Jongen, Reger and Scriabine, they were all born in 1872/73, but they couldn’t be further apart. I also like modern repertoire like Messiaen or Xenakis.

WB: You made a recording of the Moszkofski concerto, why did you chose this complement to the Grieg concerto? Is there a link between them?

JM: I did some research, I love the Moszkofski concerto and wanted to offer my own version. They knew each other and both worked with Edition Peters. Grieg wrote a letter to Peters that he had heard so much about Moszkofski and that he was worried to meet him. Moszkofski was the Wieniavsky of the piano. He wrote big pieces like symphonies and a violin concerto. He worked hard on the big forms, whereas he is only known for short pieces like Etincelles.

WB: Was he a big virtuoso?

JM: Yes, he was. He had an unusual way of playing, very elegant, like a mix of Chopin and Mendelssohn. He was Polish, like Scharwenka, his student, who wanted to be considered as a German.

WB: Are there any recordings of Moszkofski playing the piano?

JM: I don’t know, probably some piano rolls? I only know from quotes, you can see in the way he writes that he was not a “chord composer” but more a melodic writer.

WB: like Chopin?

JM: Yes, but maybe not with the same genius!

WB: Is it true that Moszkofski wrote two piano concertos, opus 3 and the one you recorded (opus 59)?

JM: Yes, that’s true, opus 3 was recently discovered. For me, there is no question as far as quality is concerned, I wouldn’t want to play opus 3.

WB: Is there a chance to perform the Moszkofski in concert or did you learn it for the recording?

JM: Good point, I never played it live but everybody was positively surprised when they heard it.  I am negotiating to play it in Warsaw. It was great to record it: the work is very strong and the orchestra was enthusiastic about this project. I wouldn’t have missed it. My motive was pure enthusiasm, not to make money. I am lucky with partners at Onyx who trust me. By the way, it’s one of the few concertos to include a harp in the 2nd and 3rd movements. When we recorded it, there was no harp on the list, since the orchestral administration only checked the instruments that were needed for the 1st movement..

WB: You also recorded the 4th Rubinstein concerto, was he a great composer? I read that he was a great pianist and thought himself a great composer?

JM: It’s a different story: Rubinstein’s 4th concerto as well as those of Rachmaninov and Tschaikofsky used to be played all the time. After the Second World War, the Rubinstein disappeared from the repertoire. The 4rth concerto was written in the same key as Rach 3rd and Rachmaninov actually played the Rubinstein. The latter is a lot more classical, whereas Rachmaninov’s concerto is rich in its writing with a lot of ornaments and cadenzas. I know that Rubinstein is not considered to be a great composer. This concerto is the best of the five he wrote, it lasts for 30 minutes, which is not too long. His problem – contrary to composers like Mozart and Chopin – is that he went on for too long. He would have been more successful had he had more sense for form and proportion. When you write music, it takes a lot of time. It’s difficult to maintain a feeling of proportion.

WB: You mentioned Scharwenka, who is also one of these “forgotten composers”!

JM: He was a fascinating personality, typical of his time: he was a composer, a conductor and a great teacher. He wrote four marvellous piano concertos of great proportions as well as solo repertoire. His brother Philip was better known for chamber music. I fell in love with his (Xaver’s, WB) Second sonata, that was written in 1871, like Tschaikofsky’s. It includes the lyrical parts that we are missing in the Tschaikofsky sonata.

WB: You recorded a CD called “Scarlatti illuminated”. Are these romantic transcriptions by Tausig and Friedman?

JM: It seemed a crazy idea that wasn’t so crazy after all. I was amazed by the amount of Bach transcriptions that you can find and thought: “What about Scarlatti? Why isn’t there a cd of transcriptions of his sonatas?” They are like jewels, miracles. I started my research on his music. There had been no significant interest for his music for over 200 years and then there were musicians like Landowska and Horowitz who played his sonatas. It was a difficult research, since I couldn’t find much, I had to go back to Tausig. He only changed a few chords and called his arrangements “adaptations for the modern concert use. Friedman made two marvellous arrangements, they are free and full of humour. Then there is the Gieseking Chaconne, an 8 minute piece. He occasionally composed and someone gave me a copy of the handwritten manuscript. It is an unusual mix of Reger, Debussy and Scarlatti. It’s the centrepiece of the CD.

WB: I believe Granados made some arrangements of Scarlatti sonatas too, didn’t he?

JM: That’s true, but they are more an edition and I don’t find them really interesting.

WB: When you play Scarlatti, is it in these transcriptions or do you play the original versions?

JM: I mostly play the originals, but sometimes I play the arrangements as an encore, people sometimes don’t notice the difference!

WB: Not long ago, you made a recording of the Chopin Sonatas, saying “There have not been many recordings and none in the past five years to my knowledge.” How can you say that? There are probably a thousand recordings, maybe not in the past five years, but the amount of recordings of these pieces is massive!

JM: I meant the complete set, including the First Sonata!

WB: Weren’t you terrified to play them when the competition is so stiff?

JM: There have always been traditions and references, but we have to go on and they do not belong to anyone! I felt the urge, I had to do it.. I played them all in concert and spent almost ten years on them. I normally don’t listen to recordings and take the score as a reference.

WB: Do you agree with Schumann who said regarding the Second Sonata that they were four of Chopin’s most different children put together?

JM: Yes, I agree, he said: “Four of the most beautiful children he put together.”

WB: However, it is a much less balanced piece than the Third Sonata in my opinion..

JM: The Third is the most melodic of his three sonatas. The Second is terrifying and uncomfortable to listen to. Its 1st movement is a hunt, the scherzo is scary, the Marche Funêbre is torturing and the last movement is madness, desperation, not a satisfying sonata for a listener. It’s getting worse and worse..

WB: Concerning its last movement, what do you make of it? “Gespenster” as Schumann said? Or I spoke to your colleague Benjamin Grosvenor, earlier this week, who said that “Chopin probably didn’t want us to understand it”?

JM: There is nothing to be understood, it’s like a wind, madness. There is not much in the score: sotto voce, only one crescendo, one diminuendo and one forte at the end. It’s not like an etude, it’s not like fog either. It’s an impressionistic conception, an atmosphere, a colour… We are so used to the short forms with Chopin, he is nice to consume, but he was also brilliant for the big forms. The sonatas are the essence of his music, they are rough experiences, both the First and the Second sonatas are stormy pieces.

WB: Do you know about the repeat of the introduction of the first movement of the Second Sonata? The score actually indicates that you have to repeat the introduction as well. Practically nobody does this, except for Pollini in his second recording.

JM: No, I didn’t know, but I think it’s simply wrong. Maybe Pollini used an old edition? I used the Paderewski edition.

WB: What do you think of the First Sonata that is rarely played?

JM: It is a funny piece, it sounds more like Beethoven and Weber than like Chopin. It has no popular melodies, still it is fascinating for a 17-year old composer. The third movement has a few moments that announce the late Chopin, it has a bizarre rhythm with five beats in every bar. It confuses you when you listen to it.

WB: I wish I could play pieces like his 1st Scherzo, the 4rth Ballade or the 3rd sonata, is it euphoric to play these works?

JM: There is the same danger for all of us: it is very hard to find the right balance. It often happens that you rush too much, therefore you have to be very strict  in order to bring out the beauty of it. We go through all the emotions and you have to think about being the conductor, which is exhausting at times. It’s like taming tigers!

WB: What is your relationship with the Ravel G-major concerto you played last night?

JM: It’s a long story! It’s one of the first piano concertos I got to know, when I was on holiday in Bretagne. I was six years old at the time and my sister was four years old. I played a little bit. My mother brought a few famous records, Ravel’s G-major concerto by Martha Argerich, Tschaikofsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Liszt’s Années de Pélérinage by Lazar Berman. We listened to it, I played “piano” on the table and my sister “played” the flute. The Ravel was our favourite, it’s a captivating and witty piece, yet very classical in a way. Two years later, I got the Durand score. Last night was my first public performance of it!

WB: Were you happy about the performance?

JM: It was not bad for a first time! You need a good orchestra and a great conductor. Antony Hermus (the conductor, WB) was simply brilliant. I played the Gerschwin Concerto and I can see how Gerschwin influenced Ravel in his concerto. However, Ravel created his own harmonic system.

WB: Isn’t it frustrating that it is such a short concerto, like Liszt 1st Concerto which is even shorter..?

JM: The outer movements make it so short. The development section is “missing”, it feels like playing a Mozart concerto, although it’s a different style. Ravel is very baroque in the instruments he uses and the main theme is sort of Bach like.

WB: Do you agree with Messiaen who said Ravel “spoilt”the concerto with the jazzy elements?

JM: That’s the salt and the soup! Messiaen was a genius and at the same time a very strict person. He could be stubborn, inventive and also tough. The Ravel G-major concerto is a stand alone piece, maybe the most brilliant French concerto. Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody is a comparable piece. By the way, I agree with you that it could have been longer..

WB: Do you listen to a lot of recordings?

JM: I do or maybe I did. Cziffra was among the “younger” ones I listened to. He was misunderstood, a very noble person who had a tragic life. He had a demonic talent and an inner fire. He was not a showman, but people accused him of being cold..

WB: I grew up with his records of the complete Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt (the 2nd version). However exciting they were, there was something predictable about the way he speeded up in the climaxes.

JM: They are so loved, but only few get them right. I also love the golden tone of Friedman, his sense of freedom within certain frames..

WB: I know you also admire Hofman, but sometimes I find his playing ruthless, especially in the 1st and 4th Chopin ballades..

JM: They didn’t have any urtext, now it’s all about urtext.. We can have doubts now about the way Cortot or Horowitz played Mozart, but it was a different time. They had a certain wildness, they wanted to show what they were capable of. There were no opportunities to do retakes. Their way of playing has been lost a bit nowadays, it’s not good! We don’t sing as much, maybe we think too much now!

WB: I remember that Arrau said about Godovsky, another pianist from the past, in the book “Conversations with Arrau”: “He was a fabulous technician, but a boring pianist who hardly ever played beyond mezzo forte”

JM: Godovsky as a pianist was a story in itself. He was an autodidact, which was specific of his approach of music. He was nervous and unable to play in public, therefore he only played in salons. He had a fragile way of playing the piano and a light touch. Arrau was very different: he had a sonorous baritone-like way of playing so I can imagine that he didn’t like Godovsky. I have sympathy for Arrau as a person, he was more of an operatic performer. Bruno Leonardo Gelber has a similar concept of piano playing.

WB: What do you think of Paderewski?

JM: He was a brilliant PR-man and a talented musician, but he was a “Salonlöwe” as they call it in German (salon lion). He was very aware of how to present himself.

WB: I heard piano rolls of Paderewski and thought his playing was very sentimental!

JM: Yes, I don’t believe what he did, it was kind of calculated, not genuine sentiment.

WB: Which pianist(s) you’d travel very far for?

JM: So many people! Simon Barere for example, he was maybe not so tasteful, but incredible, he changed my life. Gelber, especially in Brahms, Rubinstein who was unforgettable in Chopin, I love Weissenberg, who was also talented as a composer. He had very special moments, sometimes brutal when he could go wild, but at the same time he was skilful and well trained. He composed a sonata “en état de jazz”and more, even under false names,  such as Sigi Weisenberg (with one s) or mr Nobody. Maybe today he would have dared much more. There was something very modern in his playing that reminds me of the Strawinsky/Dali era.
Cyprien Katsaris is another pianist I admire, he is a bit like I imagine Mozart would have been like . He is small, full of skill, a certain irony, a demonic ability, it’s a bit lost nowadays.. If you hear his Bach transcriptions, you think the devil is in the room! He is also a very tasteful Mozart player, one of the last of a lost generation.  There is something brilliant in his sound, like with Heifetz or Kagan. I used to love Volodos but I haven’t heard him for a while. He plays the same programme for two years, I wish he’d be more adventurous. I liked his Mompou disc though.

WB: It is often said that there are no great pianists any more who are immediately recognizable, not like in the golden age. I think things are not that bad, what do you think?

JM: It’s very simple, they have to die and become legends  There are two fenomena: fist, there are more pianists than ever, there is an inflation, second, the pianos have changed. They are more balanced than before, they are not as individual any more. You need to have a great technician to work on it. I have a favourite technician in Germany, I work with him to support my personal sound. In the end it’s my job to create “the voice”.
People are hesitant, since everything is being observed today. You can find a lot on YouTube. This can block creativity, the pianists of the past lived in a different time, there was no globalization.

WB: I listened to your transcriptions on YouTube and I really liked the one for the left hand.

JM: Thank you, it’s a funny story. I admire the jazz pianist Art Tatum and listened to a lot of his recordings. I loved his version of Cherokee. I couldn’t let go and was fascinated by it. I decided to improvise and wrote a cycle of etudes. Art Tatum was almost blind and I thought I needed a limitation too, that’s why I wrote number four for the left hand! It was very inspiring and very easy to write. It was creative processing to get rid of this idea that was haunting me, it was like a meditation, maybe the way Godovsky processed Chopin.. My managers wanted it to be on YouTube.

WB: I really liked it!

JM: Thank you, that’s nice to hear. It’s difficult to play pieces for one hand and for two hands in one concert. It’s an interesting feeling for the brain: it’s weird but possible!